Friday, November 13, 2009

Mrs. Katharine S. White, My New Friend

Gardening in November, especially after a five-day steady rain, takes place indoors. Our first hard frost has yet to come and I can still find and snip handfuls of parsley, but largely it's back to planning for next year.

This week, while working until the point of breathlessness at my day job, I've been spending my evenings reading from a book that practically jumped into my hands last Saturday at a used library book sale at Brookside Gardens, "Onward and Upward in the Garden" by Katharine S. White (left, courtesy of Bryn Mawr), first published in 1958.

Katharine has become my new friend. Her eccentric gardening habits, wandering into the garden in a tweed suit and Ferragamos and coming back mindlessly muddied, I knew all about. I could sympathize, but I could hardly afford the dry cleaning. So when the book showed up on the "for-sale" cart, I was delighted. Now, I'm picturing this grand dame of gardening and literature spending her waning days hunched over her typewriting, hurriedly setting forth her own encyclopedia of gardening lore mastered over the dozens of seasons of her lifetime.

Katharine Sargeant White was the first fiction writer at the New Yorker and according to Bryn Mawr College, where her papers are stored, she was "one of the most important figures of the twentieth-century American literary world." Her second husband was New Yorker staff writer E. B. White (author of Charlottes' Web and co-author of Elements of Style). In 1925, she was hired as a part-time reader of manuscripts for the then-fledgling magazine. Six months later, she was promoted to editor of the Fiction Department, a position she held until her retirement in 1961. Her Bryn Mawr bio asserts that: "As the first fiction editor of the magazine, White not only exerted an unparalleled influence on the course of the development of the magazine, but on contemporary American literature itself." She apparently "discovered" many of the great writers of the century, John O'Hara and Vladimir Nabokov. She was also an ardent sponsor and promoter of the work of new writers, among them Mary McCarthy, John Cheever, John Updike, Irwin Shaw, Ogden Nash, Theodore Roethke, and Shirley Hazzard. She died in 1977 at the age of 84.

Last night, as I read into the midway point of my already, well-used library copy, I was pleased to receive an affirmation from her on behalf of all soil and word lovers, when she described a certain nurseyman, who had a penchant for writing. "A talent for the soil, a taste for writing and editorializing," she said, "the two interests often seem to go together." White was a connoisseur of the gardening catalogue. She wrote several articles at the end of her life for the magazine describing the offerings of the season's catalogues. And as a result, her nurserymen and women of the horticulture world blythly passed muster to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Updikes of the literary world.

Her high praise showered on the editorial content of the catalogues issuing forth from White Flower Farm, Jackson & Perkins, Burpee Seed, Brecks, Park, Bay State Nurseries, Swan Island Dahlias, Wayside and dozens of others mirrored almost exactly the line up of emails crowding my box every morning with their potent pleas for my next order. The online catalogues, of course like all the other print products of our time, have certainly overpowered and trounced their parent publications. But the very idea of settling in with dozens of catalogues on a cold winter day sent me off to the online catalogues to search for the tool that would allow me to order the old-fashioned copy on paper. White Flower Farm is now processing one, I hope, and sending it my way.

I told my husband that if I took Katharine White's book and randomly opened to some page, I'd stumble on some garden gem or literary moment of unparalleled delight and so the pages opened to reveal this fun poem. I'm not a flower arranger. I can't stand to the cut the flowers and bring them in because that only spells their certain doom. But I know a wonderful man who is married to a wonderful gal who fashions flowers for a living and because he reads my blog, I'm stealing the poem from Mrs. White's pages. (And I presume the two of you have already worked this out in your marriage.) "The Solitude of Mr. Powers" is by Mrs. White's old pal Ogden Nash.

Once there was a lonely man named Mr. Powers.
He was lonely because his wife fixed flowers.
Mr. Powers was a gallant husband, but whenever he
wished to demonstrate his gallantry
His beloved was always out with six vases and a bunch
of something or other in the pantry.
He got no conversation while they ate
Because she was always nippin' dead blossoms off the
center piece and piling them on her plate. . .

Finally he said Hey!
I might as well be alone with myself as alone with a lot
of vases that have to have their water replenished
every day.

And he walked off into the dawn,
And his wife just kept on refilling vases and never
noticed that he was gone.
Beware of floral arrangements;
They lead to marital estrangements.

The Putterer

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